The three biggest topics of discussion regarding fitness that I overhear or take part in are training, food and supplements. These topics are important to talk about and stay on point with but there is one thing that hardly anyone talks about but can have the greatest impact. Obviously, I’m talking about sleep! Sleep has got to be the least sexy and most boring thing to talk about, second only to salt. Well if you think sleep is boring then guess what? I think YOU are boring. Sleep is one of the most important things you do every single day and will have a significant effect on your workouts and your nutrition.
First off, if you are one of those people who think that you can, “sleep when you’re dead,” or, “sleep is for the weak,” just know that not sleeping will probably make you die faster and will make you weaker. Sleep can help you lose weight, gain muscle, and help control your appetite. When you’re well-rested you are more likely to feel calm, patient and energetic, but exactly how much sleep do you need?
A lot of people, including the CDC, will say you need 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
If you can get that much sleep fantastic, however, I know a lot of you probably laugh at that number because you feel lucky if you get 6 hours a night. We all know someone who seems to be able to function on 5 hours of sleep a night. They may appear to be energetic but these people are most likely the ones who are hopped up on caffeine to get by, have poor hormone regulation and have bad eating habits.
People tend to overthink how much they sleep and underestimate how well they sleep. There are those rare birds, those high performers, those freakazoids who are not sleeping a lot but they sleep well. That’s right! These people are good at sleeping, like anything else; it’s a skill you can get better at. You may be saying to yourself, “how the hell do I practice getting good at sleep?” Well, beautiful reader, I am glad you asked.
Everything I am about to tell you I learned from Shawn Stevenson’s book Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body. I will go over a few strategies mentioned in the book that I have implemented into my daily life. I’m not perfectly consistent with them but when I do all of them it is a perfect setup to getting a great night’s sleep, which leads to better workouts, better food choices and better overall health.
Getting good sleep starts the second you wake up.
One of the best things you can do is go outside and get some sunlight, even if it’s an overcast day. Getting sunlight will help your body increase your levels of serotonin. Having an increase in serotonin will make you feel more awake and alert. Obviously, this is nice in the morning and may lead to you needing less coffee, which I’ll talk about later. Just remember, serotonin will keep you up and is associated with light. Everything has a dark side and in serotonin’s case, it has a literal dark side called melatonin.
Do not get confused by my dumb joke, melatonin and serotonin are not the same hormone; in fact, they are the exact opposite. While serotonin gets released with light, melatonin gets released with darkness or the dimming if light. Your body loves rhythms; in this case the rhythm is based on the sun rising and setting. Have you ever gone camping for multiple days in a row and found yourself getting up with the sun and getting tired as the sun starts setting? That is your body naturally releasing serotonin and melatonin the way it is supposed to.
In today’s modern society, we have completely jacked this up; we are overstimulated by the screens we all love. The blue light that our beautiful screens emit suppresses our body’s natural release of melatonin. Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “but I fall asleep no problem while watching TV/ Instagram/ Twitter/ Netflix”. Of course, you can fall asleep while looking at a screen, but that’s not the point. The point is that it will suppress melatonin being released, which will impact the quality of your sleep.
Blue light can suppress the release of melatonin by 90 minutes.
Melatonin is connected to your REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, which is the deepest and most restful level of sleep we get. Now don’t worry your pretty little head off just yet; I’m not saying you need to completely stop looking at your phone / TV 90 minutes before bed. I would highly suggest you try to do so but I know it’s probably not going to happen.
Instead, invest in a pair of blue-blocking glasses, put them on about two hours before you go to bed. This way you can still watch your favorite shows and look through all the useless stuff on social media without suppressing your melatonin. Not only will Melatonin make you fall asleep faster and get better quality of sleep but it also can aid in burning fat. It does so by encouraging the development of a type of fat that is referred to as beige fat. Believe it or not, this type of fat will actually burn the type of fat you want to lose known as white adipose tissue.
Keep in mind; you are still stimulating your brain with the release of dopamine, which is sometimes called the “searching” neurotransmitter. Have you ever started scrolling through Instagram and you feel like you just have to keep going? That’s the dopamine in your brain telling you to keep searching for the next little thrill it can get. Some of you may think this sounds ridiculous but something I started doing (thanks to Dr. Stevenson) is reading by candlelight. Candlelight is different than regular light because it doesn’t emit any blue light whatsoever. Just try it out for a few nights, I promise you will feel the difference. You will fall asleep faster and get higher quality sleep.
Doing this not only keeps you from being exposed to any blue light, but reading can make you feel more sleepy.
There have been times where I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a book in my hand and the candles are still lit because I uncontrollably fell asleep. If you can’t afford to buy three candles the least you can do is try to dim the lights in your home as you’re winding down for the night or get red light bulbs for your bedroom.
This is the part where you all hate me.
We are talking about the “S” word (sleep), but there is another word that is really messing you up. I’m of course talking about the C word. That’s right, caffeine; America’s favorite drug consumed by hundreds of millions of American’s every day. Let me be the first to say that I have coffee every single day and get a headache when I don’t, which I am “working on”. I am not saying stop having caffeine, but I want you to think about when you have caffeine.
Here is some science for you; caffeine has a half-life of anywhere between 5 and 6 hours depending on the person. In a grande black coffee at Starbucks, there’s about 330 mg of caffeine; this is an insane amount, a Red Bull energy drink only has 80 mg to give you a comparison. If you have that grande coffee at 8 AM you will still have 165 mg of caffeine in your system at 2 PM, by 8 PM you will still have 82 mg in your system which is essentially having a Red bull in your system as you are trying to wind down for the day. A lot of us don’t stop at 8 AM; we sip on our favorite drug all morning because we think we need to. I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking caffeine, but start giving yourself a cut off time.
For me, I typically won’t drink any caffeine past 12 PM and it seems to work. I can normally burn off the extra caffeine because I am fairly active throughout my day.
A great way to think about drinking less caffeine is to start with this thought experiment.
Ask yourself why you need caffeine, it’s because you’re tired. Well, why are you tired? Maybe you went to bed late last night. Why’d you go to bed late last night? Maybe you were watching T.V. (which is not a good reason to get a poor night’s rest) which is the real reason why you are tired the next day. So instead of just using caffeine as a crutch work backward to what the actual issue is that is making you tired in the first place.
Another fantastic way to improve your quality of sleep is to make sure that your room is completely blacked out. There was a study done where participants were split into two groups. One group slept in complete darkness and the other group was in complete darkness with the exception of light the size of a quarter being shone on the back of their knee. The group that was in complete darkness got deeper sleep for longer, compared to the group that had the light.
If you live in a city or you work nights, I would highly suggest getting some blackout curtains for your room. Especially for those of you who work in the medical field or who are first responders and work at night. You need to be on point while working because people’s lives can be at stake. Even if you can only take a couple of 3-4 hour naps at a time; make sure they are the most potent sleep you can get.
Here are a few more quick tips then I’ll leave you alone. I said it before and I’ll say it again; your body loves rhythms.
So do it a favor and try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Even if there’s a night where you stay up a little later than normal, try to still wake up at your normal time. Next, reserve your bed just for sleep. If you watch TV, eat or talk on the phone in your bed, your brain will not associate your bed with sleep. Instead, it will associate it with being awake and stimulated. I started doing this a few months ago; now the second I pull the covers over me I can feel a switch happen in my brain where I feel my body get more relaxed and ready for sleep.
Try to avoid working out at night.
There was a study that had people workout at 7 AM, 1 PM and 7 PM. The 7 AM group got better sleep and fell asleep faster. The later people worked out, the worse their sleep was and the more difficulty they had falling asleep. This goes back to your hormones. Remember, in the morning your body releases serotonin, which helps you stay awake. If your body is trying to produce melatonin, but you work out, you will be sending mixed messages to your body and no one likes getting sent mixed messages.
I placed a button at the top of this article linked to Dr. Stevenson’s book, I cannot recommend it enough! Remember, sleep isn’t for the weak and lazy, it is for those who take fitness and life seriously; don’t let yourself go through life tired, stay woke….literally.
Thanks for hanging out, now go to bed!
TLDR: Get sunlight in the morning, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, avoid working out late at night, blackout all light from your room, dim your lights or use candlelight 90 minutes before bed, wear blue-blocking glasses two hours before bed, don’t have caffeine past noon and reserve your bed for sleep.